Parachurch, Not Parachute: Advantages and Disadvantages of Extra-Church Bible Studies and Fellowships
I’m a pastor who is the product of parachurch ministries.
I have a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I’m working on my PhD at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Both my parents taught Precept Bible studies when I was growing up. As a student at Texas A&M University, I participated in Breakaway Ministries and served as a counselor at Impact Camp. As an adult, I taught Precept myself, I have served on the board of multiple parachurch ministries, and I graduated from Downline Ministries’ Discipleship Institute. God has used parachurch ministries to shape me into the pastor I am today.
Over the last two years, as I prepared to plant our new church in College Station, my understanding and love for the local church have grown. This has made me reevaluate the roles that parachurch ministries have played in my spiritual formation, and left me asking the question, “Where was the church?”
This question hits at the heart of the tension between the church and the parachurch. But before we address that tension, let’s ask a preliminary question: what is a parachurch organization? Here is a working definition: any organization that is not a local church, that seeks to accomplish one aspect of the mission that Christ has given to the church.
Here are a couple of important things to observe about this definition.
1. The church is essential, not the parachurch.
Christ has promised that he will establish the church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt.16:18). He has not promised to establish a parachurch ministry. The church is plan A, and there is not a plan B.
2. The parachurch is not a humanitarian organization.
The parachurch must be attempting to accomplish at least some part of the same ultimate mission of the church: discipling the nations for the glory of God (Matt. 28:18–20). One of the benefits of the parachurch is that it can specialize in different aspects of this goal. It can train pastors, send missionaries, teach the Bible, evangelize the lost, focus on niche demographics, and more. While a parachurch can engage in humanitarian efforts, what makes it a parachurch is that it performs those services toward the ultimate ends of the church.
THE TENSION BETWEEN PARTIES
The tension between the church and the parachurch can be seen in how the parachurch accomplishes its ministry. Some parachurches are healthier than others. On the healthy end of the spectrum, the parachurch conducts its ministry by serving the church. On the unhealthy end of the spectrum, the parachurch attempts to accomplish the mission of the church, unwittingly or not, by replacing or sidelining the church.
Every pastor reading this article can probably think of many parachurch organizations that exist somewhere along this spectrum. There are amazing, healthy parachurch organizations that serve the church well and stand in the gap where the church has massive blind spots. There are also parachurch organizations that unfortunately operate as if the church is not the means God has established to accomplish the Great Commission, but an obstacle in the way.
Unhealthy parachurch organizations create problems inside and outside the church. Inside the church, an unhealthy parachurch can teach church members to be lazy. When the church outsources its primary responsibilities, such as teaching the Bible, evangelizing the lost, training pastors, planting other churches, and sending missionaries, the members of the church can wrongly assume that the church can choose to opt-in to these tasks.
When a parachurch ministry is meeting certain needs, some may feel like there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Church members might reduce their obligation to writing checks to the experts. They may divert funds that would otherwise go to their local church to their favorite parachurch ministry and thereby rob the church of the financial resources and manpower necessary to fill the gap that the parachurch services.
The unhealthy parachurch can also create problems outside the church. Parachurch ministries tend to be seasonal or specialized, meaning they focus on a particular age group (college ministries, Christian camps, etc.) or they specialize in an area of ministry (inductive Bible study, pastoral training, etc.). This can create a distorted view of the Christian life.
Let me explain. The church is full of people who are struggling, people who are dying, people who are in different stages of maturity. The parachurch exists in a more controlled environment. Once a Christian leaves the season of life where the parachurch focuses, they may find it extremely difficult to transition to the local church.
The key to healthy parachurch ministry is to make sure its ultimate goal is to support and encourage healthy churches. I say its ultimate goal because parachurches naturally go through a life cycle. Often, parachurch ministries come into existence because the church is failing in some area. This can be good for them to do. More gospel opportunities exist than any local church with limited resources can engage. Therefore, the parachurch is a gift to the church.
The problems arise if the parachurch forgets that they can’t replace the church. The parachurch should not look with disdain on the church, but transition to resource and train the church to see and fill the gap in which it has failed. The life cycle of the parachurch should begin with filling the gap the church has missed, raising awareness in the church, and then serving the church by resourcing and platforming the church to meet the need that has been identified.
As this is an article to pastors, not parachurch directors, let me leave you with some takeaways.
First, teach your people to love the local church. The church is flawed, but it is the only institution in God’s kingdom that is essential. There’s no category in Scripture for membership in a parachurch; so help your people, especially your young people, to love the local church.
Secondly, do not merely outsource ministry. Disciple your church. Teach your people. Use your church as a platform for evangelism. Do not be afraid of reinventing the wheel because your church is God’s Plan A.
Lastly, support healthy parachurch ministries. The local church can benefit from the specialization of the parachurch, and the parachurch needs the generalization of the local church. Lead your people to parachurch ministries that love the church and come alongside the church to accomplish the Great Commission.